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The Deets on Oxidative Stress

by guest blogger George Grunfelder, 4th year nutrition student, Winthrop University

Every day it seems there is a new article on the amazing health benefits of antioxidant consumption. Article and news headlines tout these mystical nutrients for numerous things ranging from longer lifespan, slower aging, reduced cancer risk, and various other glamorous effects. While these effects may be very attractive for the average consumer, it is helpful to explain the reasoning behind the push towards more antioxidant consumption. 

Is the media misleading the public, or are they really onto something? Are antioxidants really that important? Surprisingly enough, yes! It seems as though this is a rare case where the media is doing the public a service by encouraging the increased intake of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory diets! While the media may sensationalize results, often likening antioxidants to nature’s “fountain of youth”, their exaggerated claims do seem to be based on actual scientific studies, where cellular damage is slowed down with increased antioxidant consumption. Science has been repeatedly showing how antioxidants and anti-inflammatory diets may play a key role in preventing certain chronic diseases and fighting the effects of oxidative stress. 

So what is oxidative stress? Oxidative stress is a state of imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in our bodies. It occurs when there is a buildup of free radicals that has exceeded the amount of antioxidants present, causing an imbalance that is harmful to our bodies. Free radicals are products of normal metabolism that, due to some basic chemistry, are very reactive and can cause damage to cells, DNA, and various functions in our bodies when they outnumber antioxidants. It is important to note that they do play a necessary and beneficial role in our health when kept in check with proper intake of antioxidants. In the case of oxidative stress, free radicals have been shown to play a role in the development of certain chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, inflammatory diseases, arthritis, and many others.

This is where antioxidants come into play. During oxidative stress, we have too many free radicals out and about, reacting with all sorts of processes in our body on a cellular level, causing damage wherever they go. Antioxidants are able to stabilize these free radicals and make them less reactive by donating a spare electron, without making themselves unstable. This means less cellular damage due to a rogue free radicals. Having a steady supply of antioxidant rich foods in your diet can be one of your best defenses against oxidative stress.

Besides a lack of antioxidant intake, free radicals may accumulate from certain environmental sources, such as pollution and radiation, from certain lifestyle choices, and naturally through our bodies’ daily metabolism. Diets that are high in fat, sugar, and alcohol may contribute to excess free radical formation. Smoking, ozone exposure, and pesticide exposure may also increase free radical production. 

So now that you understand the why, let’s talk about the how. Antioxidants are found in practically all foods, but most abundantly in fruits and vegetables, which contain on average about 64 times more antioxidants than their animal sourced counterparts. Does this mean you have to cut out your meat and dairy to be healthy? No, but it does suggest consuming an adequate amount of antioxidant rich plant foods alongside them in order to reduce oxidative stress! To get the most bang for your buck, try adding herbs and spices such as turmeric, oregano, and cinnamon to your cooking routine. Herbs and spices are some of the most antioxidant rich foods available, and are extremely versatile. Look for opportunities to boost your antioxidant intake, such as adding cinnamon to your coffee or oatmeal in the morning. 

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